If you’ve ever been on Twitter, Ervin Santana probably follows you. Or at least, whoever’s in charge of Ervin Santana’s Twitter account. That account seems dead set on making some kind of impact. The same can’t be said to the same extent of Ervin Santana’s agent, Jay Alou, whose account is decidedly less active, but just the other day Alou happened to tweet out something of particular interest, that caught the attention of many:
— Jay Alou (@JAloujr) December 23, 2013
Santana’s currently a free agent without a home, and as far as we can tell there hasn’t even been much in the way of negotiating progress. Everybody has been waiting on Masahiro Tanaka, because everybody likes Tanaka better than the domestic starting pitchers on the market. Now that Tanaka’s been posted, the rest of the pitcher market should move forward, meaning soon Santana can start really talking money. In part to help entice suitors, Santana seems to be working on a new pitch. The idea is self-improvement, and it’s never a bad idea to improve.
You’ll notice we don’t know what the pitch is. We don’t know how far along it might be, and we don’t know how Santana might intend to use it, whatever it is. There’s this air of mystery and intrigue, which is kind of the whole point. Like we don’t know what Santana might be capable of, now. I have just a handful of thoughts that I’ll put in a list.
(1) If Santana’s working on a new pitch, it’s not weird that his agent would let people know. In that way, he can drum up more interest. It is, however, kind of weird that his agent would tweet about it, because potential employers won’t be making decisions based on what they see on Twitter. He should already be informing people in the game, privately. Twitter is more for fans, and fans don’t have any control over a free agent’s negotiating future. It’s not like it’s going to cause problems — tweeting it is probably harmless. And it could conceivably help create a buzz. But Twitter isn’t where you make a sales pitch.
(2) We hear about new pitches every spring. It goes along with guys being in better shape, guys making mechanical tweaks, guys raising or lowering their hands in the box. Most of the time it doesn’t seem to make a difference, but it always seems like it could make a difference, and it’s a big part of feeding chronic spring-training optimism. Santana, basically, is just getting a head start on that, while he’s still available to anyone with a big enough wallet. Instead of raising the eyebrows of one team and one coaching staff, Santana is tying to raise the eyebrows of an entire market. It would be interesting to know what effect this might have on his ultimate contract, not that we could ever actually know the answer for sure.
(3) One of the problems with analyzing the effects of adjustments is that adjustments are selective for players who might need to make adjustments. If you do well, you’ll probably stay the course. If you struggle, you’ll probably try to make a change or two in order to move forward. Santana, then, is a strange case. He’s coming off his best season since 2008, and it’s already been rumored that he’s looking for a nine-figure deal he’s not going to get. Santana, over the last year, has gone from rotation throwaway to desirable asset. His stock has risen immensely, because he performed well, and these ordinarily aren’t the kinds of guys you expect to be messing around. The positive angle is that Santana’s never satisfied. The cynical angle is that Santana shouldn’t be messing with success.
(4) There were, of course, some success stories with new pitches this past season. Rick Porcello started throwing a curveball and he started striking hitters out. Max Scherzer started throwing a curveball and he had good success against lefties. Danny Farquhar got another chance, this time showcasing a cutter, and he posted one of baseball’s highest strikeout rates. Sometimes a pitch can make a huge difference. Even for a guy who’s already successful.
(5) This isn’t entirely unfamiliar for Santana. Prior to 2007, he developed a lot more confidence in his slider. That year, his strikeouts picked up, but he allowed too many dingers. Prior to 2011, he worked on showcasing a split-finger fastball, having learned from Dan Haren. That year, he increased his rate of grounders. This past season, Santana seemed to lean more heavily on a two-seam fastball. He got more grounders and trimmed his walks. Santana’s always been a heavy fastball/slider sort, but he’s never been afraid to try changes.
(6) Given that Santana has leaned so heavily on his fastball and slider, you’d figure he’s probably working on a curveball or a new changeup or a splitter again. Maybe a cutter. Some sort of weapon for lefties. That would be by no means a bad idea, but it’s worth noting Santana hasn’t shown big giant splits. He’s been worse against lefties than righties, of course, but against lefties his slider has been a fairly successful weapon. The last three years, Santana’s splits show almost identical strikeout rates. His xFIP against righties has been 3.96, while his xFIP against lefties has been 4.05. There’s also a ten-point difference in raw FIP. Santana’s managed to keep lefties in check despite not possessing a true lefty-killing weapon, so as much as you’d think he might benefit from an additional offspeed pitch, there’s only so much better he could be.
In a few ways, Santana is less appealing than Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez. Certainly, he’s less appealing than Masahiro Tanaka. He’s long had a problem with home runs, and teams haven’t forgotten that as recently as one year ago he was given away by the Angels for nothing. He’s a power pitcher who isn’t exactly a strikeout pitcher, and last year was quite different from the year before. But one can’t help but be captivated by the idea of a pitcher having a new pitch in his arsenal. It makes the “what if-” game a lot easier to play, and it makes Santana feel like more of a mystery. There’s appeal in mystery, and Santana wouldn’t be the first pitcher to take a step forward after modifying his toolkit. Of course, it could go nowhere. Of course, Santana could make himself worse by tweaking when he shouldn’t be tweaking. But I know I’m going to want to see what this is, this new thing, and I know it’s a fascinating marketing tactic.
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